St. John Paul II's Statues Laden with Lead (EcoWaste Coalition: It's Time to "Detox" Religious Statues, Use Lead-Safe Paint)

As the Catholic community welcomes with great jubilation the elevation of Blessed John Paul II to sainthood this coming Sunday, a toxics watchdog drew the attention of the public and the church on the elevated levels of lead in statues made to memorialize the beloved Pope.

The EcoWaste Coalition detected lead, a toxic metal that can cause harm to human health, in the paint coatings of some statues of St. John Paul II (SJPII) that are being sold by religious craft stores and sidewalk vendors in the city of Manila, particularly in Oroquieta and Tayuman Streets and outside Quiapo Church. 

All five samples of SJPII statues donning different liturgical vestments and costing between P200 to P650 were found to contain lead up to almost 10,000 parts per million (ppm), way above the regulatory limit of 90 ppm, as per screening conducted by the group using an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device.

In a letter sent today to Archbishop Socrates Villegas, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines,” the EcoWaste Coalition expressed “hope that the Church will seriously look into our findings and back our proposal for religious statue makers to voluntarily switch to lead-safe paint coatings.” 

Regarded by many as an “environmental pope,” SJPII spoke a lot about the environment and the common responsibility for good stewardship of the Creation during his 26-year papacy, including the threat of pollution of the natural environment and the protection of citizens from exposure to dangerous pollutants, the group stated.

“In celebration of the World Year of Peace in 1990, SJPII said the ‘state has the responsibility of ensuring that its citizens are not exposed to dangerous pollutants or toxic wastes,’” recalled Aileen Lucero, National Coordinator of the EcoWaste Coalition.

Lucero further noted that SJPII, addressing a workshop by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1993 on the theme “Chemical Hazards in Developing Countries,” told the participants: “Who cannot but be deeply concerned by the prospect of the already existing and ever expanding danger from pollution and other side effects of the production and use of chemicals?”

“Given SJPII’s clear stance against chemical pollution, we find it only fitting that the statues and other mementos made in honor of the ‘environmental pope’ should be safe from health-damaging substances like lead,” she said.

“In fact, all religious statues, which many Catholic adults and kids customarily touch and kiss as an expression of faith and reverence, should be toxic-free,” she emphasized.

While lead exposure is detrimental to everyone, lead exposure harms children, especially those aged six years and under, at much lower amounts, causing damage to the brain that is generally untreatable by modern medicine and can have a lifelong impact, the EcoWaste Coalition said.

Over time, the lead-containing paint on the surface of the statue will deteriorate, especially with frequent patting, wiping or kissing, releasing the lead in chip or dust that may get into the hands of young children and their mouths.

“Health authorities have concluded there is no known acceptable lead exposure level for children, making it imperative to eliminate all preventable sources of lead pollution,” Lucero stated.

“Even if the leaded statues are kept out of children’s reach, would it not be better – from the perspective of occupational, consumer and environmental health – to design and make non-toxic religious crafts?  It’s time to detox these popular faith symbols,” she said. 

Based on the XRF screening, the following statues of SJPII were found contaminated with lead:

1.   A 6-inch statue of SJPII wearing an egg yellow chasuble had 9,559 ppm of lead.  (Place of purchase and price: Catholic Trade Manila, Inc., Oroquieta St., Manila, P448)

2.  A 9-inch statuette of SJPII wearing yellow chasuble had 1,401 ppm of lead.  (Place of purchase and price: Quiapo Church sidewalk vendor, P200)

3.  A 12-inch image of SJPII donning a yellow chasuble had 1,214 ppm of lead.  (Place of purchase and price: HF Religious Art Shop, Tayuman St., Manila, P250)

4.  A 9-inch statuette of SJPII in yellow chasuble had 1,146 ppm of lead.  (Place of purchase and price: Quiapo Church sidewalk vendor, P200)

5.  A 12-inch statue of SJPII in white chasuble and sitting on a papal chair had 1,069 ppm of lead.  (Place of purchase and price: Sto. Niño Catholic House, Inc., Tayuman St., Manila, P650)

In her letter to Archbishop Villegas, Lucero also cited that religious images screened by the group in time for the Holy Week were likewise found to be loaded with lead.  For example, an 11-inch “Santo Niño de la Pera” had a whopping 33,300 ppm of lead.

“We further hope that the Church, inspired by SJPII’s teachings on protecting human health and the environment, will  go beyond making statues lead-free, but take further action to ensure that paints used in churches and other church-run institutions such as schools, hospitals, orphanages and other child-occupied facilities are compliant with the country’s regulatory policy for lead,” wrote Lucero.

Last December, Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje issued a landmark chemical control order (CCO) for lead and lead compounds that establishes a threshold limit of 90 ppm for lead in paints, and sets a phaseout period by 2016 for leaded decorative paints and 2019 for leaded industrial paints.